Archive | Movies RSS feed for this section

Movie Review: Arrival

Writer and director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies, Sicario) presents another visual puzzle with his Arrival. This alien science fiction drama is slow, deliberate and ponderous and less gruesome to watch than those other movies. Villeneuve still earns strong performances from his cast and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Amy Adams (Her, Man of Steel) in leading roles are fine. Neither as inscrutable as a Shyamalan or Nolan picture nor as clear, elegant and rewarding as a Hitchcock movie, Villeneuve blends his elements into a cold, gray think piece.

arrivalteaseronline1-shtindianoceancoordinatesArrival plants clues to its plot surprises, but it’s still too intellectual for its own good. I figured out what was happening at a certain point in the action—you probably will, too—and, unlike The Sixth Sense and other twist movies, Arrival refreshingly exists to cultivate and encourage thought, not merely to shock, surprise and titillate. So, this is immensely absorbing. Though it is based solely on earth, Arrival belongs to that resurgent genre of Hollywood sci-fi movies such as The Martian, Interstellar and Gravity which emanates from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Marooned, even Apollo 13: space or science fiction that makes you think. But, to varying degrees, these movies are lacking in an ability to make you feel.

Arrival comes closer than most. Masterfully scaling back to focus on the individual—a woman named Louise (Adams)—while retaining the expectant sense of awe at a terrestrial visit by aliens, Villeneuve imbues a bleak, remote sense of grayness into the film. Using Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score (strikingly similar to Michael Nyman’s music for Gattaca), Amy Adams’ face and the placidity of a lakehouse, Villeneuve marks the motion picture with singular touches of significance to allow the audience to trade on what one notices. A beautiful tree signals that life stands alone against the world. A pair of wine glasses indicates couplehood. A body pillow suggests loneliness.

The desire to be connected to others is central to Arrival‘s intelligent theme. It comes clearly from the Adams character, Louise, an academic linguist who writes and teaches that language is both art and the basis for civilization. Louise enters her classroom trying to connect, looking out at students, probing for inquiring eyes,  reaching out to family, from her daughter to her mother, and, of course, to the aliens that she is contracted by the American state to decipher, analyze and interpret. Connection, communion, are key to Arrival.

So are disconnection and departure. Through its gray tones, flat lines and televised scenes of talk radio rants, widespread traffic jams, panic and looting across the world as 12 alien spaceships hover over the earth, Arrival deposits in Louise a feeling of loss, alienation and despair; the earth in its meltdown is leaving her or she is leaving this earth or something extra-terrestrial is going on, even as Louise narrates and hints that life is a grand and meaningful loop to close—in Apple’s words, is it one infinite loop?—blotchy circles are all she has to work on.

With mounting pressure on Louise’s boss (Forest Whitaker) to get fast answers so earthlings can size up the visitors’ aims, Louise is both driven by her desire to connect and taunted by her visions of her daughter. In the meantime, she connects with Renner’s scientist, a sensitive and intelligent colleague who sees the profound effect of the mission and accounts in his own way for its universal implications. Will the aliens attack? Do they hold certain concepts and, if so, how? Can the government be trusted? Will Communist China wage a first strike upon the spaceship over Shanghai? What to make of the naysayers, from those pre-judging the aliens to those claiming that their ships are bad for the environment?

How do we know what we know?

This last question is implicitly answered with a bit of a parlor trick in Arrival, which puts 12 ships over 12 parts of earth, teasing with whatever you know of the number twelve—months, apostles, monkeys—and leading to a final question: Are we alone? The answer will almost certainly make you think, at least if you draw a conclusion about whether an answer is possible, and Arrival supplies plenty of material with which to make one, including a far-fetched notion about what a dictator would and would not do. But in the heroine, thinker and pioneer, who may choose to defy the government, the earth and the whole world to save and enrich herself while leaving the world alone—if arguably putting the world at risk of destruction—one finds inner peace. Arrival‘s screenplay by Eric Heisserer based upon a tale by Ted Chiang leaves few breaks in the loop and little room for interpretation that the meaning of life is to live, let live and fill it in with what’s entirely up to you.

Arrival is as much about why you want to escape as the wonder of anticipating an arrival and it is skillfully made. It transports, deposits and prompts thought more than it moves the audience with emotion. In a turbulent world being torn apart, getting there is good enough.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billy-lynn-movie-1Director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain) makes interesting movies and this one is no exception. I found it oddly moving, if hollow and flat. This is not Lee’s best picture.

Aside from the striking, new visual technology, he shows and tells the audience something important about today’s American soldier.

Opening with the sound of rapid fire, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk builds a tale within a tale around an appearance on Thanksgiving 2004 at a pro football game. Those appearing include the title character and his fellow Iraq War soldiers.

The Dallas, Texas-set film, made in cooperation with Communist China, follows the wandering unit in two places: Texas and Iraq. So it predictably includes digs at oil, money and hydraulic fracturing and a biting line at the expense of the facts and history of the Alamo. However, the sense of alienation that pervades all of Ang Lee’s films works with these unfortunate bits, adding to the emptiness and aimlessness of being a soldier in the non-war which Americans fight in Iraq, where they’re basically like targets that have been deployed to no end.

As one soldier in the movie puts it, they build schools for students without textbooks.

Flashbacks frame the plot and knowing in advance what will happen, in particular how it impacts blue-eyed Texan William “Billy” Lynn (Joe Alwyn), smuggles an emotional punch into Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A flat script and agnostic theme trap the movie, which dramatizes in its mid-section the contrast between America’s lifelessness—through its vapid obsession with pro football, pseudo-patriotism and traditionalism—and the soldiers’ passion in battle.

For long stretches, nothing much happens onscreen, until you realize that this may be the movie’s point. The band of young men, perfectly cast ordinary youths who look, sound and talk like typical Americans enlisted in the Army, are forsaken by their countrymen. They are alternately emasculated and overromanticized. The band of men are left, as in Clint Eastwood’s Sully and American Sniper, to drop dead by a nation too busy obsessing about football, Beyonce and other mediocrities and spectacles (Trump drifts into one’s mind). It’s a fact that, for 15 years, the bravest men have been systematically slaughtered, maimed and deeply, horribly damaged by the aimless deployment by the U.S. government with not much success in terms of America’s defense. The vivid picture’s middle alone is worth seeing for the sake of thousands of U.S. veterans of an asinine, badly conceived and waged war in Iraq.

Like today’s vets, who are left to die, mistreated, neglected and forgotten in the horror chambers of government-run health care known as the VA, the men who Billy Lynn helps to lead are both admired under false pretenses and abandoned on passing whims. Billy Lynn doesn’t even get an Advil he’s asked for until near the end of the movie. But, boy, do they ride like show ponies in gussied up Hummers with an agent (Chris Tucker) trying to cash in on their bloody battle in Iraq.

With Vin Diesel (the Fast and Furious movies) as an Army leader, Kristen Stewart (Twilight, The Runaways) as Billy’s soulmate who happens to also be his sister, Garrett Hedlund (Troy, Unbroken) as his superior and Steve Martin (The Jerk, Housesitter) as a conservative businessman, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on Ben Fountain’s book, falls short of the high expectations of its 3D/high resolution pedigree. At its best, however, and with great clarity in the middle of the picture, it depicts how vacuous America’s let itself become and the long-lasting harm such nothingness does to men that might have become its greatest defenders.

As an aside, I think I may have sat next to a war veteran during the screening of this film in Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome. During the usher’s movie introduction, the stranger made a sharp, bitter remark to me about starting the movie on time. When I turned, I noticed that he was heavily bearded and much younger than his comment made him seem. I also noticed during the movie that he was quieted as the picture wore on, less anxious, and he slowly slipped lower and lower and lower into his seat, like an abused child feeling smaller and more vulnerable by what’s happening around him. He was rapt. He was all alone and in that short time and exchange it seemed to me that he was alone in more ways than one. This is why I have a hunch, and it is only a hunch, that at some point he may have enlisted in the Armed Forces to fight for America. Whatever its flaws, and apart from my mixed estimate of its value, I think Billy Lynn, which debuted on Veterans Day, is made to depict and drive home the willfully unknown American soldier. If we are ever to get through this civil division and bring an end to the war engulfing us, he ought to be known, recognized and properly honored. And I think he ought to feel like he’s ten feet tall.

Movie Review: Loving

9398331_loving-first-poster-from-jeff-nichols_775d47e9_mLoving by Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter) starring Joel Edgerton (Midnight Special, The Great Gatsby) and Ruth Negga (World War Z) captures at once the tension of man’s morally principled stand against the state, love’s intimacy and the immeasurable toll government control exacts upon the best people.

As it does, Loving deftly tests one’s rationality at every turn, demanding that the audience—woman or man, white or black—examine closely, and subconsciously, held biases, values and ideals. Like this season’s other lyrical movie about forbidden love, Moonlight, and other such tales (Brokeback Mountain comes to mind), Loving comes in three parts: breaking from tradition, getting caught and the final accounting with the facts of reality. It’s a hard, moving and elegiac movie and it ranks with Black or White and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner high among Hollywood’s greatest interracial-themed films.

Unlike those other movies, however, Loving‘s lust, love and guiltlessness is on full display. In fact, writer and director Nichols, a native Arkansan who lives in the Lone Star State as he told the screening’s audience this weekend in Hollywood, immerses the moviegoer in the nine-year saga of a Virginia married couple who, from 1958 to 1967, defied the state at every turn.

Opening with the prolonged singing of crickets against a dark screen to draw you into their world, layering in sights and sounds of Old Dominion’s nature and the manmade, from leisurely grasshoppers—the “birds and the bees”—to drag-racing and gunning of Ford Motor Company Galaxies and Fairlanes, mid-century mid-Southern living means hard work and easy, natural loving. Men, including blond, white and brawny Richard Loving (Edgerton, studied and owning the role) concentrate on every detail in manual labor. Men and women, black and white, toil under hoods of cars tinkering with engines, on blazing sun-drenched construction sites smoothing concrete edges and in wooden rooms delivering babies.

In one emblematic scene, they toil in tobacco fields and, as the camera pans, it becomes clear that it’s been almost a hundred years since the end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Races by now are mixed and, amid the race mixing, with poor whites such as Loving and biracial or multiracial people such as his girlfriend Mildred (Negga in a subtly mannered performance), this part of a Virginia county is a community. Marriage of a white man to a partially black woman (which happened in real life and is the basis for this movie) is almost like breaking a sweat in the fields or cracking open a beer; it ought to be mere fact of life.

Only it isn’t an acceptable notion and everybody knows it. Except for Richard Loving, who takes his bride to where it’s legal to marry among different races and comes back to the county where all hell breaks loose and someone—it’s never disclosed who—snitches to the police, who enforce the archaic law banning interracial marriage by breaking in on the married couple’s bedroom. Almost as soon as the cop (Marton Csokas, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Alice in Wonderland) invokes religion—condemning the man-woman relationship as breaking “God’s law”—the newlyweds proclaim themselves “Guilty”. They go to jail. And Mrs. Loving is pregnant.

But Nichols, as he did in Midnight Special, Take Shelter and Mud, brings in the winds of change, which keep blowing and regenerating the lands and minds of Loving. Mildred and Rich Loving, like outcasts, forbidden lovers and persecuted others everywhere, try to live by the rules and can’t abide. One of the smartest things about the screenplay is its insistence on going slow, not fast, in showing how Mr. and Mrs. Loving fail to disown their egos—living apart, leaving the county, the state, and their families—in order to be a married couple. As they keep having kids, with the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument in the backdrop, Nichols dramatizes the folly of selflessness.

Winds blow, lives are torn apart and Loving sifts through the years as they live in fear of total government control of their lives. In this way, thanks to Nichols, Negga and especially Edgerton’s flawless performance as a man who is completely alone among his fellow men, Loving is emotionally powerful like Snowden. A scene at the bar where he drinks beer with his drag racing buddies confirms that collectivism (i.e., racism) contaminates every part of his life and Richard Loving’s response is a wrenching depiction of statism’s harmful impact on the individual. “I love my wife”, Loving says at a crucial point. But when he does, he knows the terrible and unjust cost of refusing to be conquered by the violation of his rights.

The man who labors, races and loves his wife and children is a credit to himself, however. In a single exercise of free speech, someone reaches out for help and help goes on the way. It’s a long time and hard fight in coming and the waiting robs the couple of time. That one of their only precious and private moments comes during a brief rest during The Andy Griffith Show with a Life photographer on hand is integral to the historic couple’s unique tragedy and legacy. This lesson is the moral of Nichols’ searing yet gilded new fable.

Movie Review: American Pastoral

american-pastoral-posterAnother 2016 adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, American Pastoral, succeeds in certain respects despite its flaws. Capturing Roth’s moody, 20th century intellectualism—like this year’s Indignation and 2003’s underestimated The Human Stain—the staples, i.e., achingly dramatized skepticism about far left ideals and humor in the American Jewish experience, survive the rips and tears.

American Pastoral, especially for the young who’ve been indoctrinated to romanticize the hippies, the New Left and the Sixties, is rooted in true stories. This thoughtfully written and directed picture is a singular tale of how it really happened, in essence; the vitriol for everything decent and middle class, the anti-capitalism and the incessant, systematic contamination of the youngest minds. That it’s bottled up in often stilted, poorly directed dialogue can be forgiven of foreign, first-time feature film director Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), who cast himself as the male lead. The tagline, “a radically ordinary story”, prefacing the era depicted in Ang Lee’s Seventies-themed The Ice Storm, takes hold. The poster’s picture of a house on fire in a world turning upside down foretells the darkly humorous, bitter and tragic tale of a young nation’s rapid, horrible and oncoming end.

In present-day narration by a writer (David Straithairn), the downfall of the family living the American Dream begins with Jennifer Connelly as a beauty contestant and winner and Ewan McGregor as the star blue-eyed athlete who meet and marry in Newark and quickly go off to live in the country, as mid-Atlantic types relish calling it, to cash in on post-World War 2 Americanism. He’s the son of a Jewish factory owner with liberal, middle class values. She’s the beautiful, corn-fed Catholic bride.

It’s the perfect match.

Or is it? Contrary to this week’s other bleak yet involving new picture, Moonlight, this couple was commonly the consensus of what a pair who had everything—what today’s twisted types deride as “privilege”—were typically like: white, middle class, assimilationist and aspirational. As they walk into their future, their figures are blinded by the sun. Pictorially and thematically, American Pastoral plays like an Ayn Rand novel with only villains and mediocrities, a blend of Charles Dickens, John Irving and Billy Joel’s emblematic song and video, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Indeed, when they have their first and only child, Merry, it becomes clear that the postwar darlings have everything but no grasp of its value; whatever Roth’s and screenwriter John Romano’s intentions, their Mr. and Mrs. America are utterly ignorant of themselves, good parenting and a rational philosophy. They are no match for mid-20th century America’s New Left crusade.

So, when pictures of self-immolation face the girl at a formative age, Connelly’s mother only frets about its effect but does nothing to counter the damage. McGregor’s father? He tells the bright, scarred child: “It’s far away”. That’s one of his first lies. Sitting in an ideal home with only a sense of what causes the ideal, the ghosts of self-abnegation are coming for their child. As insidious irrationalism slithers into their country lives, through an analysis of their daughter’s stuttering which should trigger their alarms and doesn’t, out pops Merry the 16-year-old radical leftist (Dakota Fanning, not even close to looking sixteen but perfectly raging and vacant in her best role since The Runaways), spewing hate speech for everything American and middle class like a Manson girl and making Patty Hearst look like a mid-Sixties Barbie doll.

Think this is too much and it didn’t happen this way? Think again. It did. Watch the clips embedded here, sit back and see how the alt right began—as an offshoot of the New Left, itself an amalgamation of the mindless conformity and traditionalism of the Fifties.

“People have lost their minds”, someone says in the wooden style that director McGregor must have mistook for terseness and simplicity. But clues in the script are plain to see, retaining a balance of irony and agony, dismissing political threats and intimidation as “just talk” (sound familiar?) and rhetorically asking about parenting with a straight face: “How can you know what to do?” As Newark erupts in race riots, with the factory that feeds the family in the crosshairs, McGregor’s “capitalist pig” bonds with Uzo Aduba’s black factory manager to unfurl a banner that pleads: “Negroes work here”.

The capitalists get what the New Left insists they’ve got coming a second later, though not before Aduba’s middle class black gives a heartfelt speech to National Guardsmen in a fine, moving scene that resonates today, too.

That an act of “homegrown” terrorism—today’s shorthand for America’s rotting from within—forms the sadly, hilariously wicked basis for the moral of what happens to the bright child whose parents negated her before she negated herself is fitting, if not fully dramatized. McGregor and Romano have a sense of what it must be like for a tortured “Comprachico”, whether he becomes a raging New Left terrorist or a raging militia terrorist or any ordinary anarchist, nihilist or jihadist near you. Despite a stagy quality in certain scenes, the anger and confusion of a century of disowned, monstrous children is in Dakota Fanning’s eyes.

American Pastoral in this naturalism has that to say about what we’ve been through all these years and more. There’s more of Roth’s uniquely bitter mix of social commentary on sex, desire, perversity and how civilized man sanctions the spreading savagery in everyday lives. “She’s sick in her mind,” McGregor’s father pleads as he nears his final destination in a parent’s long, anguished quest to redeem himself and save his lost little monster. In this judgment, he’s pegged the nation we have now. American Pastoral is not as polished and pure as I may be making it sound. But it serves to recall how the sickness began.

Movie Review: Moonlight

moonlight-posterBilled as ‘the story of a lifetime,’ Moonlight leaves an unfinished life. This remarkable film is uniquely involving for what might to some feel like strangeness, frankness and a kind of dissonance. The carefully shot and edited movie, which takes place in Miami, is both disturbing and mesmerizing and its impact depends on you, the individual.

As neat and tidy as I like a movie to be, Moonlight is too neat, too deliberate in its unsentimental approach and its use of the word ‘nigger’ and it is too shallow in its characterizations. Superficially, this gay-themed coming of age tale about a boy in the South Florida ghetto digs deep. The actors who play the lead character, Chiron (pronounced shy-rone), are each exceptional in the role. The whole cast makes this movie like watching a slow, gentle but sad dream that drifts into becoming a nightmare.

In three parts, Moonlight traces this boy’s life. As ‘Little’, a derogatory term his peers use, referring to his size, the gangly, bullied, unhappy child mopes, hides and takes refuge in a vacant place used for illegal drug trades. Here, he meets the neighborhood drug pusher (enigmatic Mahershala Ali).

The drug man with the chocolate brown eyes that melt when they look upon the lost, deflated boy becomes like a father to Chiron. In a pivotal set-up scene at a diner, the hardened adult sees that the wordless child is deeply and easily harmed. The mentoring begins. As soon as he meets the boy’s high-strung, single mother (Naomie Harris), the mentoring becomes an unspoken vow. The pusher’s girlfriend (pop singer Janelle Monae) steps in as a surrogate mother and goes by her own judgment. When asked his name, the confused, unguided boy answers with the truth and explains that people call him Little. “Well, then I’ll call you Chiron,” she says.

This warm, lovely moral fable unfolds in layers, with music at the movie’s center and striking, lyrical touches in sound and vision. Chiron’s outgoing schoolmate friend, Kevin, never seems far from the sensitive boy. The wealthy drug pusher and his nurturing female housemate offer sanctuary from his unpredictable, unstable and unloving mother. The father figure finally teaches the boy to swim—rendering an afternoon of fatherhood with a lesson on how to float—and what Chiron really gets is his first moment to let his guard down and trust, relax and experience the world around him.

But worlds collide. Blood spills. The word ‘faggot’ comes and gets defined, truth comes out and the head hung low is no longer Chiron’s. Reality in the ghetto remains and Moonlight serves a potent depiction of the school, home and neighborhood as imprisonment. As Chiron grows up, still not fitting in, he lives in fear of others, literally sometimes in a kind of cage. No one—not his mother, not his teachers. not Kevin—is free to guide, protect and love him and those who might are in their own kind of enslavement. This is Moonlight‘s dilemma, conveyed evocatively by writer and director Barry Jenkins, with story credit to Tarell Alvin McCraney.

This is also the film’s construct and it feels like a construct. Crucial action happens offscreen. Characters evolve, embrace and die out of focus, out of view and the movie’s brand of impressionism robs its story of impact and intimacy. Chiron is borderline autistic and his silent torment is easily Moonlight‘s most effective dramatization. Surely, this gay, black ghetto story is rooted in reality. Of course, drug pushers are hardened by life and it’s important to know that they, too, are human, and Moonlight delivers this point with poignancy. When the Caribbean Sea’s waves break against the shore under the moonlight amid poetic urban lament and as prelude to suppressed desire’s release, the rhythm and frame are beautiful.

But the action is unseen, removing the promise of deliverance and resolution that makes Moonlight worth watching.

At its best, Moonlight depicts an often untold tale of ordinary men. Its cast, especially Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron at three life stages and Andre Holland (Selma, Black or White) as the adult Kevin, performs admirably. The mental and physical abuse experienced by the boy at the mercy of ghetto classmates, sanctioned by school officials including a female official who shames the victim, suggests a formative answer to how American blacks’ poverty turns the innocent into the hostile. But Moonlight is too coy, contrived and stylized (making it too ‘Hollywood’) to wholly show and tell what has been an unseen, untold and, as it is, compelling if not everlasting tale.